My Teaching Journey

I’ve recently been reflecting on my teaching career.  I started teaching in the engineering school about fourteen years ago.  The first course I taught was an undergraduate engineering course on engineering computation.  The focus was on using Microsoft Visual Basic and Microsoft Excel to solve basic engineering problems.  It was a great opportunity to do something different professionally.

My next course was a graduate course in operations management.  That was a nice fit, given my background in operations research, mathematical modeling, and simulation.  I taught that course for several years.

I added a couple more courses shortly after that.  One was on computer networking and the other was on computer security.

There came a point where we began to steer our master’s degree program more toward technology management and entrepreneurship.  I reworked the operations management course to become a course in the management of technology.  That quickly became my favorite course to teach.

From there, I spun off a course specifically on technology and innovation, with the emphasis on innovation.  I also developed a special topics course on professional communication for engineers.  That’s a long story; it was built around my own personal experiences of being a person who was always uncomfortable speaking in front of an audience, while being someone who has to do that all the time.  That’s when I wrote my book, Effective Speaking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Presentations.

In the last few years, my courses have been centered around systems engineering and engineering management.  I’ve been a professional systems engineer for over forty years, so that’s my niche.  But I’ll tell you, that’s been a tough subject to teach.  I’ll save that story for another time.  On the engineering management side, I’ve been teaching what is essentially “finance for non-financial managers” and strategic planning (with a deliberate focus on teaching IT-industry technical professionals how to better understand the problems of alignment between business and technology workers).

It’s been an interesting journey:

  1. Engineering Computation
  2. Operations Management
  3. Computer Networking
  4. Computer Security
  5. Management of Technology
  6. Technology and Innovation
  7. Professional Communications for Engineers
  8. Systems Engineering
  9. Financial Concepts
  10. Strategic Planning

What will I be teaching going forward?  Anything new?  I’m not sure.  One thing I’d like to do is develop a course on consulting skills and methods.  Another idea is a course on technology sales and technical sales support.  I’d also like to revise and update my course on professional communications, which could easily be part of the consulting skills course.

I’ve also considered starting a “professional development” consulting business to bring some of these important topics to a broader audience.  I ran my own consulting business for a number of years and it was a satisfying experience.   It’s also a great way to serve if you can help others develop their professional abilities and do it for a nominal charge.  There’s more to this story as well.

Five Thoughts for the Day

Here are some thoughts to ponder:

1. The best leaders are “reluctant leaders.”  Steer clear of those who never want to lead and those who always want to lead.  Look for those who don’t seek leadership roles, but who naturally emerge as leaders when the situation requires it.  They tend to have that rare combination of competence and humility.

2. Life really is a zero sum game.  Beware of those who tell you otherwise.  They’re just trying to get into your head.  Not everyone gets the job, or the raise, or the promotion.  Not everyone gets a fair shake or a decent chance.  That’s life.  But maybe you can offer someone a fair shake, or a decent chance, or some measure of hope.  And maybe you should.

3. Never emphasize teamwork for the sake of teamwork.  You need a better reason than that.  If you can’t explain in 10 seconds why you need a team to do something, then you probably don’t need a team to do it.  In that case, you’re better off without a team.

4. The greatest barrier to effective communication is that no one is actually listening to you.  That’s why your first sentence needs to get people’s attention.  Remember the professor who always started the term by saying, “look at the person to your left and to your right because one of you isn’t going to be around at the end of the term”?  Make your first sentence an attention-grabber.

5. Never assign an optimist to advise you about risk factors.  Always look for the person who can tell you “why the plan is going to fail.”  It’s not a character flaw.  It’s a super-power.  Leverage it.


Overcoming Speaker’s Anxiety

For me, the secret to overcoming anxiety about public speaking is to remove myself from the equation.  It’s not about me – it’s about my message.  It’s that simple.

Here is why I say this.

I believe that the fear of public speaking is rooted in one (or more) of three things:

  • You think you have nothing worth saying.
  • You think you will embarrass yourself.
  • You don’t like being the center of attention.

Those are legitimate concerns. There’s nothing wrong or unusual about feeling that way.  But it’s only one side of the equation.

Just as there are reasons that cause you to prefer not to speak, there are also reasons that can convince you – even compel you – to speak. The two forces are held in tension, and it takes only a small change in those forces to tip you in one direction or the other.

What I am saying is that, as reluctant as you may be to speak in front of a group, there are circumstances that would prompt you to run to the front of the room and speak, even if it meant interrupting someone else.  Suppose, for example, that you had just received a text message that a massive tornado was approaching the facility and that everyone needed to seek shelter immediately.  Would you keep it to yourself out of fear of embarrassment?  I don’t think so.  Would you think it worth disrupting the event in order to warn others?  Of course.  People should be warned about the danger.  The message would be of enormous importance.  You would know that and you would act.

I’ve given you a dramatic example, but there is a lesson we can draw from this that applies even in less dramatic circumstances.  When it comes to public speaking, just remember that it’s not about you.  You are simply there to serve, to add value, to be the messenger of something worth saying.  That takes the pressure off.  It takes you out of the equation and puts the focus on the message itself.  For me, that changes everything.

Now, I concede that there are times when we may be required to speak, even though we have nothing significant to say.  In an academic setting, for example, you might be given an assignment to make a presentation or give a talk on some arbitrary topic.  Those can be challenging moments because the circumstances are artificial.  My advice, once again, is to remove yourself from the equation.  Find something about that topic that will enrich your audience. Tell them how the information you’re sharing with them may be of value, even if it’s simply to entertain them or encourage them.  Be positive.  Serve them in some way.